Developing an online academic writing resource for students using Rise, Trello and Dropbox
A collaboration between the i3HS Hub, MPH and the University Language Centre
Written by: Cath Wasiuk (i3HS), Angela Spencer (Lecturer MPH), Rob Marks (Head of Academic Success Programme)
In January 2020, Angela Spencer (MPH Lecturer) contacted Rob Marks from the University Language Centre (ULC) Academic Success programme, about improving the support that the online Master of Public Health offers international students with academic writing. Angela had identified that students who struggle with academic writing on the programme were at a higher risk of academic malpractice. Based on her observations, she approached Rob with the idea of creating an online resource for students to help build confidence in their academic writing that would be available to all students from the beginning of their course all the way throughout their studies. The aim was to launch the online resource in September 2020, with the potential for it to be made available to a wider audience within the university.
The team consisted of Angela, Rob and Cath Wasiuk from i3HS. Angela invited Cath to be part of the team to lead on the online course development and design. The team met for the first time in January 2020 to discuss the requirements of the projects, the platforms, the design as well as how to work collaboratively as a team. In that meeting, we established:
- the online resource would comprise of 4 x 1-hour standalone courses
Making sense in your academic writing (Course 1)
How to make your ideas flow in your writing (Course 2)
How to organise your ideas (Course 3)
How to support your ideas (Course 4)
- the courses would be flexible so that they could be taken at any time and in any order
- the courses would create a link between the MPH programme and the ULC with signposts to further support and guidance for academic writing
- we would collaboratively build the course in Rise and gather feedback using the Review function
- we would use online tools (Trello and Dropbox) to manage the project and work collaboratively
We decided to use Trello to manage the project as we wanted to move away from spreadsheets, heavy documentation and email, and use online tools that enabled opportunities for iteration, communication and collaboration.
Trello is a visual project management tool organised around boards, lists and cards.
We had a project board organised by lists using a Kanban framework. Kanban is often used in Agile projects (Agile is central to the i3HS Hub ethos) to track task progress and provide project transparency in a visual way.
We created a Trello card for each task (learning resource or activity) to be built in Rise. Each card contains a ‘Description’ section to be completed and a ‘Task acceptance criteria’ checklist. The cards also capture different types of activity for the task such as comments, due dates, who it was assigned to etc. This was useful to track progress and accountability for each task in a transparent way.
In the first instance, the cards were added to the ‘List of tasks’ list in Trello, with a corresponding file in Dropbox linked to the Trello card, which contained the outline of what needed to be built in Rise. When the team started work on a task in Rise, they moved the Trello card into the ‘WIP’ list (Work in progress). Once the task had been built in Rise, it was then moved to the ‘Test’ list. The team could then review the task in Rise and provide feedback, which means that each task went through a process of review and iteration during the development process. Feedback and reflection are key (and continual) processes in Agile methodologies and the core values of openness, honesty and respect in Agile that can help improve project outcomes and project outputs. Each card had to pass the task acceptance criteria before being moved to the ‘Done’ list.
When the university shut down in March 2020 it was easy to make the switch to working collaboratively online based on our established workflows, replacing any planned face to face meetings with a Zoom call:
Rob: “The Trello board was a very clear way of showing what needed to be done, who by and what stage it was at. Having the Dropbox too made it easy to share files synchronously and be sure we were working on the latest version of the document. In an odd twist, the final face-to-face meeting I had before the university closed down for the pandemic was with Angela and Cath — but we were ‘pandemic-ready’ as we already had the architecture of our collaboration in place, and it moved online pretty seamlessly.”
Evaluation of impact
The courses launched on time and to schedule in September 2020. Student feedback for the courses has been extremely positive. Students agreed or mostly agreed that ‘the content of this course has improved my confidence in academic writing’ (Course 1 97%, Course 2 80%, Course 3 100%, Course 4 100%) and they agreed or mostly agreed that they ‘would recommend this course to other students’ (Course 1 100%, Course 2 90%, Course 3 100%, Course 4 100%). The freeform comments have also been overwhelmingly positive:
“Useful, wish I had done something like this sooner in my academic career”
“For a student returning to study, this was well pitched. Thank you”
“Useful exercise in advance of midterm assignments”
“good overview with further details clearly explained thank you”
“Very informative, easy to learn and understand and love the interactive quizzes and tests of the content”
“I thought the tasks were all straightforward and I appreciated how it was interactive so I actually felt engaged and could test my knowledge”
“Once again, I am impressed with how useful this was even to me (a native English speaker)”
Currently, the courses are embedded as Rise SCORM packages into the MPH Programme Community and the Academic Success Programme on Blackboard. The benefit of adding a Rise SCORM package into Blackboard is the ability to track who has accessed and completed the courses. Approximately 12% of all students have either completed or started the first course in the MPH Programme Community space:
Angela: “Students have just submitted their mid-term assignments on the Masters programme (MPH). This is our first opportunity to review the writing standard of students on the course. I am keen to find out how many have accessed the resources to make the best use of them prior to their submission and will be signposting students to these resources as part of the support and feedback provided.”
On the Academic Success Programme, the courses are available to all students as a flexible alternative option to the live workshops. Although there are more students on the Academic Success Programme Blackboard space, only 2% of students have either started or completed the first course. Therefore, the uptake of the resource by students differs depending on the context in which it is made available. However, it is an option for ULC to use the online courses in more of a flipped-classroom approach to the live sessions instead of an alternative mode of delivery of the same content, making more use of face-to-face time with students.
The team found the tools were effective to manage the project and work collaboratively.
Angela: “The use of Trello to organise the project gave me a clear overview of what we planned to achieve and our progress in getting there, which kept the momentum going. This came at a time where we moved to working from home in light of the Covid pandemic and were becoming heavily reliant on online tools and ways of working. Not only did these techniques keep the project together when everything else was falling apart but I think the project put us in good stead to adapt to other changes in our ways of working.”
Rob: “Having a clear workflow visible to all (like our Trello board) is not only good practice but also simple and intuitive — and future proof.”
The team found that this new way of working collaboratively was a refreshing way of working:
Angela: “I mainly work in isolation when developing course units so it was great to work as a team with Rob providing the detailed course content and Cath with the technical expertise. Cath introduced Rob and me to Trello and the framework to organise the project. It was difficult to get my head around at first but Cath was very knowledgeable and supportive in this way or working.”
Rob: “It is exciting to work like this with people from different departments — especially people as patient and helpful as Angela and Cath…In ULC we’ve relied on Excel spreadsheets for project management of materials development before, but I would definitely consider something like Trello for similar projects in the future.”
However, working online was not without its challenges. At the beginning of the project we were also sending emails when we had made changes in Trello and Rise:
Angela: “At first we relied on email to inform each other on progress and where the project was up to, but once Rob and I got used to Trello and gained confidence that we were all using it in the same way, things really came together.”
Once the team had established trust in each other, and the workflow, the emails stopped and the collaboration happened in Trello and Rise. We managed to establish an effective way of working and were able to quickly add others to the workflow to help build the last 2 courses.
There were also some issues with getting notifications initially on Trello:
Cath: “Sometimes I missed updates on the Trello board because I had switched off my email notifications in previous projects because there were too many! However, this was becoming an issue if I didn’t check the Trello board for a few days when there was a flurry of activity on the project. So I switched email notifications back on and created a rule in Outlook that moved the email notification straight into a Trello folder. This was extremely useful as I didn’t miss any more notifications and my inbox wasn’t clogged.”
In the beginning, there was sometimes some confusion with the workflow between Trello and Rise (e.g. the Trello card said that content had been created in Rise, but the Review link had not been published to show the latest version). However, this was easily resolved between the team once the issue had been identified.
Overall, the team found that the tools and the process for working collaboratively online were efficient and productive.
This project achieved its aim of creating 4 online courses on academic writing. The feedback from students demonstrates that the courses have helped them build confidence in their academic writing. More broadly, the project is an example of teams working collaboratively online using free project tools to help make working together more productive and transparent when working remotely. Although online collaboration using new tools and workflows is not without its challenges, it is also an opportunity to rethink how we work together online during and post-pandemic.
Some of the processes talked about in this post have since been automated. Read this blog post for more information on this: Designing and planning your online course with Trello
Rob would like to thank Liam Thomas and Will Boyes (summer language tutors at the University Language Centre) who helped complete the content for the academic writing online resources.
Cath Wasiuk is a Learning Technologist at The University of Manchester in the i3HS Hub. She has over 10 years of e-learning experience within various roles across the Higher Education sector in the UK. In her current role, she supports healthcare professionals to develop reusable (open, CPD and credit-bearing resources), innovative, learner-centric and multi-discipline learning materials. Cath has a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, a Postgraduate Diploma in Academic Practice, an MA in Electronic Communication and Publishing, and is a Senior Fellow of Advance HE.
Angela Spencer is a Lecturer in Public Health at The University of Manchester on the Master of Public Health Programme (MPH). Angela has been course unit lead for Health Promotion Theory and Methods for 4 years and is currently course tutor for Working with Communities and Introduction to Public Health. Angela is one of the Deputy Directors of the MPH, leading on student support. Angela completed her PhD in 2015 which investigated socioeconomic inequalities in cervical cancer prevention. She continues to undertake departmental research and supervises a number of PhD students.
Rob Marks’ first degree was in Environmental Biology. He has been with the ULC for over 10 years and completed his MA TESOL at the University of Manchester in 2014. He is now Senior Coordinator for the Language Centre’s Academic Success Programme and teaches on a number of programmes helping current students with academic English. He has also taught and coordinated the summer Pre-sessional courses. He has conducted research into a number of the in-sessional programmes and presented some of his findings at a BALEAP (British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes) conference in 2016.